Having become the darling of the Jewish world with his masterly portrayal of the sheer horror of the Holocaust in 1993’s Schindler’s List, Hollywood’s biggest director has now risked being denounced by those who formerly praised him for highlighting some of the less savoury policies of the state of Israel, in a highly topical action thriller based on real events from more than 30 years ago.
Considering the sheer levels of vitriol involved in the Israel/Palestine conflict, where to show any indication of criticising Israeli policy can lead to accusations of anti-Semitism, for a non-Jewish director to try and dramatise an aspect of the long-running and bloody dispute would have simply been begging for widespread condemnation.
For the single most prominent director currently working, the only man who has brought to a mass cinema audience some indication of what it was like in the Nazi death camps, and a Jew to boot, to highlight some of the more unsavoury tactics used in response to Palestinian terrorism might have led some to have expected a bit more leeway to be given.
But, especially in these less than terrorism-free times, the sheer prominence of Steven Spielberg has instead led to even more vehement denunciations of the very idea of his film, even before it hit cinemas and before any of its critics had seen it.
The film centres on the infamous events of the Munich Olympics of 1972, where a group of Palestinian terrorists abducted and murdered 11 Israeli athletes. Spielberg has been careful to contact the families of some of those killed to arrange screenings and ensure that his film is not overly sensationalist in depicting these historical events, yet it is the movie’s portrayal of the Israeli response in the aftermath that has drawn the criticism: the dispatching of a group of highly-trained Israeli agents to hunt down and assassinate the terrorists responsible.
The controversy, however, has come about not through any real criticism of the Israeli response, but to the precise opposite – Spielberg’s perceived refusal to condemn. Neither the Israeli reaction nor the Palestinian action which sparked it are portrayed as being unreasonable; rather both sides are depicted as acting through decidedly and all too human motivations. Both the Mossad agents and the Palestinian terrorists are guilt-ridden by their actions and worried that what they are doing is not the right thing, yet feel prompted by the cycle of violence into fulfilling what they have been forced by circumstances into accepting as their duty.
With powerful central performances from Eric Bana and Daniel Craig combining with Spielberg’s customary sensitivity, sentimentality and incredible sense for a great scene and shot, this makes for a compelling semi-factual thriller. Yet the parallels between the aftermath of the Munich terrorist murders and current events are never made explicit while remaining always obvious.
The controversy, however, seems to stem largely from the admirable attempt of the director to avoid making any explicit judgements or forcing any opinion on his audience other than that the whole Israel/Palestine conflict is a tragedy in the truest sense of the word. Intelligent Hollywood thrillers are a rarity, yet this is one of the finest examples of recent years. Not to be missed.